It began with 11 words: “We’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.”
Natalie Maines, lead singer of The Chicks, couldn’t have known how that sentence about George W. Bush and the burgeoning Iraq War would change everything for her and her bandmates, Emily Strayer and Martie Maguire. Those words, proclaimed to a London audience on March 10, 2003, would echo through the rest of The Chicks’ career.
In the two decades that have passed since people burned the country trio’s CDs in front yards nationwide and The Chicks were excised from country radio, things have gotten only more complicated for women in country music.
For many entrenched in the genre, what happened in 2003 is a salient explanation of exactly why what happened to The Chicks hasn’t been entirely limited to one moment or even one band.
“I have a hunch that if it wasn’t what happened on that stage on March 10, then it would have been something else,” said Marissa R. Moss, a music journalist and the author of “Her Country: How the Women of Country Music Became the Success They Were Never Supposed to Be.” “There would have been another breaking point for The Chicks — they were too popular, too opinionated, too loud.”
The Chicks — they dropped “Dixie” from their name in 2020 — became a cautionary tale for women in country music, a genre that has held fast to often undefined “traditional” values and patriotism.
“This incident nearly ended The Chicks’ career, and the aftermath had a major effect not only on them but many other artists,” said Leslie Fram, the senior vice president for music and talent at Country Music Television. “The term ‘Dixie-Chicked’ became a real thing, and artists, especially female artists, didn’t want to make their opinions known due to the fear of being ostracized by conservative fans or radio.”
The Chicks’ freefall began on March 10, 2003, when Maines tried to connect with a crowd while playing a show in London: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence.” And then that fated sentence.
Maines’ words didn’t become a global headline until March 12, when The Guardian ran their review of the show. In the pre-social media era, the comments didn’t spread in real time. But when they got back to Nashville, all hell broke loose.
Maines was already known for being outspoken, someone who proudly identified as a feminist and had previously waded into debate about the looming war. The Chicks not only regularly appeared at country music festivals, but were also staples at the women’s music mecca Lilith Fair. Maines feuded with the country megastar Toby Keith over his hit “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (Angry American).” Maines had called the lyrics — written in response to the 9/11 attacks — “ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant. It targets an entire culture — and not just the bad people who did bad things.”
“The Chicks were already perceived as dangerous in that moment. They had already been embroiled in a court case against their label, suing them for unpaid royalties,” said Jada Watson, an assistant professor of information studies at the University of Ottawa and principal investigator of the SongData project, which tracks the evolution of music genres through data analysis. “The industry saw them as ungrateful little girls. It’s almost like the industry had all the ammunition they needed to get rid of them.”
In March 2003, The Chicks were country music stalwarts. They had performed the National Anthem at the Super Bowl earlier that year and had singles on the Billboard charts. After March 10, though, thousands of phone calls flooded into country radio stations across the country asking them to ban The Chicks. And the industry listened.
For The Chicks, “the glass was already filled all the way to the top and this was the very last drop to make it overflow,” Moss said.
The 19th spoke to women country artists, who watched the backlash play out as they built or dreamed about their own career, about how they still feel the impacts of The Chicks’ cancellation. They spoke about the ways in which they have existed in, around and outside of that legacy of retaliation for bucking the genre’s norms.
“I wouldn’t have had the courage to be out my whole career if not for The Chicks,” she said.
Her first memory of watching the news was when the fallout with The Chicks began, when people burned the band’s CDs in massive public displays. For Grae, who was 12 at the time, the moment only intensified her love for The Chicks — and her understanding of what it meant to be an artist.
“It showed me that your opinions do matter,” Grae, now 32, said. “They matter so much that it affected a whole country and a whole genre when they spoke out.”
The Chicks taught Grae about the importance of speaking out without fear.
“I’m raising a family in one of the most conservative states in the country and in an incredibly conservative genre, but I’m not a conservative. I have to not be afraid,” Grae said. “The Chicks taught me to speak your mind, speak your truth, and also not be afraid because not everyone is going to agree with you and maybe a conversation you start will help people meet to find some common ground.”
Still, though Grae was invigorated by The Chicks’ statements, it had a quieting effect on many artists.
“Every artist has had a Chicks moment where they seem to be grappling with, ‘Do I say something or not?’” Watson said. What happened to The Chicks, she said, “sends a really harmful message that you need to stay in your lane. That you can’t question authority. That you’re just supposed to ‘shut up and sing.’”
Early in her career, Grae said she was advised to not bring girlfriends to public events, or describe them as “just a friend.” After a year in the industry, she said she realized she didn’t want to play that game — and was quickly told by industry executives that they “didn’t know what to do” with her.
“I was told that I have a commercial sound, but that my lifestyle is not commercial,” she said. “That was a speed bump for me, for sure.”
This generation of artists, Watson said, watched what happened to The Chicks over the past 20 years “and understand that the institution cannot and will not love them.” The message was clear: The country music machine that exists to “support only one type of artist — a White, straight man.” The women who try to make their own way have to do something different, Watson said, and then they often face criticism for not sounding “country enough” by mainstream country standards.
Artists who pursued crossover paths as a means of seeking an alternate path to reaching an audience, like Shania Twain in the early aughts and Kacey Musgraves in recent years, were then “punished for not being loyal” to country music and further ostracized from it. Musgraves, for instance, had her album blocked from contention in the Grammys’ country category in 2021 after crossing over into broader pop music, something that men in country have done while still remaining in contention for awards.
All of the artists The 19th spoke to for this piece are White. People of color in country music face additional hurdles breaking through in a genre dominated by White men, with extra layers of scrutiny on what can be considered part of the genre.
The Grammy country committee rejected Beyoncé’s 2016 song “Daddy Lessons” — defended by many country titans as a squarely country song — from contention in its categories. Just a month before, Beyoncé had performed “Daddy Lessons” with The Chicks, who went on to record their own version of the song, at the Country Music Association Awards.
Lil Nas X, a Black queer artist, was launched into stardom by the twangy, bass-laden country crossover hit “Old Town Road” in 2019. The song broke through on Billboard’s Hot 100, R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Country charts all at once. And then, quietly, Billboard removed “Old Town Road” from its country charts, saying its initial inclusion on the genre’s chart was a mistake.
Streaming services like Spotify have opened up pathways for artists to build their own audiences outside of the radio, which Watson says has revealed the flaws in country radio’s logic — that airplay meant popularity — and allowed more flexibility in defining the genre. The way that Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert, and even Taylor Swift transitioned their brands to reach a pop audience is evidence of that, too, Watson said.
“All anyone would talk about was airplay as a sign of what the population wanted, but we know better than that now,” Watson said. “We know that radio actively curates its audience based on what it plays, and an audience isn’t going to get anything different than what radio feeds.”
This could mean ushering in a new generation of listeners who have not always been represented as quintessential country fans. As someone who regularly plays Pride shows and festivals, Grae is struck by how many queer country fans there are — and doesn’t take lightly what her presence as an out artist means.
“Representation matters. I want to be someone that a little girl in Alabama can look up to, regardless of her circumstances,” she said.
Grae sees herself as someone who is very grateful to have “a seat at the table, is being served food at the table, and now I am wanting to have some thoughtful conversations with the other people I am sitting with.” She thinks about the future: “I just want to be a grip for the people now coming up behind me.”
Grae is in talks with the Country Music Awards about creating a space for LGBTQ+ songwriters to work together surrounding the annual industry festivities. She continues to speak out on social media, whether it’s about issues that impact her directly like language in anti-abortion bills that might limit in vitro fertilization and other forms of assisted reproduction, or Tennessee’s recent law targeting drag performers. When she does, though, she says she tried “to remain in a space where I feel like someone would still talk to me, even if they disagree with me.”
She looks to The Chicks in how she thinks about this work.
“They are the poster children for overcoming adversity within this genre,” she said. “Their journey is incredibly inspiring. I could hope for nothing more than to have a career that mimics theirs, even with its pitfalls — because I don’t see it as a pitfall, but as a transformational breakthrough in seeing who is really there for you as a human and as an artist.”
Margo Price, 39, was in college during the uproar over The Chicks. At the time, Price was trying to forge a career as a folk musician in the vein of Bob Dylan or Joan Baez. Political statements seemed central to that work. She hasn’t lost that thread today: Her four critically acclaimed alt-country albums have helped amplify messaging around issues that matter to her. She regularly speaks out about climate change, abortion rights and gun violence in America.
“My art is a reflection of my human experience, and I guess my experience is filtered through a sort of feminine lens,” she told The 19th. Even though Price didn’t consider herself a mainstream country music fan at the time The Chicks found themselves in the culture wars crosshairs, Maines’ London comments struck her.
“It was pretty rad that they took a stand, because I definitely didn’t support Bush or the war, and I remember the backlash,” Price said.
She specifically remembers The Chicks on the cover of Entertainment Weekly’s May 2003 issue. The bandmates posed naked save for words like “boycott,” “Saddam’s angels,” “traitors,” “big mouth” and “Dixie sluts” painted over their bodies — all descriptors hurled at them after March. It was the first major interview the band had done since the scandal had erupted.
Price said she was struck by the way that, even as the masses continued the pile-on, The Chicks doubled down on calling attention to the tenor of the conversation about them, and how gendered it inherently was, by choosing to participate in that kind of cover shoot.
“I thought it was a pretty cool statement, and a continuation of what artists have long been doing, which is speaking their mind,” Price said.
Today, Fram says, country music is having a unique moment, with a crop of what she describes as “our modern-day outlaws” who are letting their songwriting and artistry speak for itself. She points to Price, Musgraves, and Maren Morris — who achieved mainstream success while also continuing to speak out on abortion rights and voice support for transgender youth — as key examples of what this new movement looks like.
But Fram also stresses that while these women identify as country artists, they also “don’t depend on country radio.” Their music has reached audiences outside of airwaves as a result of a digital-first music climate, where artists can build strong fandoms through social media, garner press independently of genre publications and awards systems, and reach listeners’ ears through streaming services and cross genres with ease.
Price said she focuses only on “just trying to carve out my space in the musical world” — which means not caring about however she does or does not exist within the norms of mainstream country music.
“As soon as I got my career off of the ground, I got pregnant and the pandemic hit. I’ve had haters from day one who tried to smear my name and say I didn’t deserve my success. Like I hadn’t worked hard enough for it,” Price said. “But I don’t pay them any attention.”
She has kept her focus on her own sound and musical evolution as an artist, penning a memoir about her own experiences with addiction and the loss of a child in the interim.
What Price does pay attention to, though, is the radio charts and festival billing line-ups that she said send a very clear message about just where the country music industry wants women to be and how they want women to be — lower ranked, literally. Even with her 2019 Grammy nomination for Best New Artist, Price knows she will rarely if ever find herself on those lists.
“Many of the old farts who run these establishments want women to sit and look pretty and have no opinion. They want it to remain white and straight and male dominated like some outdated episode of ‘Leave It To Beaver.’” Price said. “That’s why so many of us women turn to other genres for acceptance. But that doesn’t mean we’re going quietly into the night.”
Price acknowledged that she isn’t played on country radio. Her outsider status feels good, though.
“I’m an anarchist in the country music establishment,” she said. “I am the black sheep wandering on the hill. I am more worried about how to solve climate change and gun violence for our children.”
The notable absence of women on country radio — Watson found that women artists received just 11 percent of all reported airplay in 2022 — is a part of the same kinds of attacks happening on reproductive rights right now, Price said. “Even when we think we’ve made progress, there are still entrenched biases and judgments that we all make daily.”
Women seeking to find their ways both within and outside of the corporate country music system often have politics and art that force them to operate independently from the industry. In doing so, they are providing a kind of road map for younger artists and finding new avenues and sounds for their music to connect with audiences excited by their interpretations of what it means to be country.
Watson noted that many of the women in country music who dominated the charts around the same time as The Chicks, such as Martina McBride, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood and Shania Twain, also stopped receiving the kind of airplay they once did after The Chicks fallout. She said she could not determine whether it was an effect of “retaliation against The Chicks” or because of age-related assumptions about marketability of women who had by then reached their mid-30s.
That created a system, she said, where only two or three women at a time are anointed with the status of mainstream country music star. “It’s always groups of two or three, two or three women that are allowed to succeed to the levels that allow them to make a good living. We can always name who they are in each era following The Chicks, and we can’t possibly name all the men who make money to the same capacity. I would need your hands, mine, and other people’s hands to do that.”
Lindsay Ell’s first full-length country album, “The Project,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard country sales chart when it first came out in 2017, but coming from Calgary, Alberta in Canada, Ell said it took her living in Nashville for a while to fully understand how country music, and country radio, functioned as an industry.
“As female artists, we have so many challenges with our songs being heard, let alone our voices being heard,” Ell, 33, told The 19th.
It makes figuring out what Ell calls “speaking your voice” even more difficult, especially with the specter of what happened to The Chicks hanging in the background. Growing up, Ell looked up to artists like Twain and The Chicks, people who she perceived as “writing music that mattered.” She loved that country music was music that told stories, where lyrics and the art of songwriting were prioritized.
She’s also felt the effects of The Chicks’ legacy firsthand.
In November, Ell posted on Instagram about the importance of voting and offered a ticket giveaway tied to it. In her post, Ell wrote about passing her citizenship test and the importance of midterms. She continued: “One of the best things I’ve learned is that the biggest number of newly registered voters are young women. This makes me so hopeful because I’m a young woman and I know the power we hold, especially when we rally together.”
Almost immediately, Ell saw a significant drop in her follower count. The comments to her post are filled with messages calling her out as a supporter of abortion rights, despite zero mentions of abortion anywhere in her post. One in particular asks her where in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights does it say you can murder a baby before concluding, “This comment on your page will be the defining moment and demise of your career.”
Ell said the experience made her feel even more committed to talking about what she perceives as “important things,” like voting. “I’m not going to force my beliefs onto someone, but I can talk about participating in society and loving each other.”
After 12 years in Nashville, Ell said she has come to think of country music and the Nashville scene as “a family” — but that the 2020 surge in the movement Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd made her understand that community differently, especially as a White woman. Ell participated in the protests following Floyd’s death in Nashville and posted about it on social media. On Instagram, she showed herself at the protest holding a hand painted sign that read “1Love.” In the caption she wrote: “For the family of George Floyd, and to the black community as a whole, my heart breaks for you. We have to start speaking up and teaching each other there is only one kind of love. Racism is a learned behavior and we are far too educated of a society to let this injustice continue to happen.”
Country artists like Morris and Musgraves joined in posting messages of support for Black Lives Matter. But many of the genre’s biggest artists stayed silent. It was an issue Ell assumed everyone in the industry automatically would rally behind. She was surprised when that wasn’t the case.
“It was wild to go through things like Black Lives Matter and see a division within our country music family,” Ell said. “It was like like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute — I thought we were supposed to love each other wholly.’”
Ell said she also had the sense that women artists especially felt pressured to not speak out in that moment, or about other issues that have felt important for them, knowing what it may mean for their careers. She said she perceives this as being part of the different standard to which women artists are held in Nashville. “We need to work harder, we need to work longer hours, and we need to do it with two hours of glam before getting on camera to do it. That conversation is often forgotten.”
Twenty years after Maines spoke those 11 words, women in country are still envisioning a separate reality. What if they could — like Willie Nelson, for example — freely speak their mind and still have audiences’ focus remain on their music?
“How different would things be for The Chicks, and for the genre, if their comments were just taken as ‘opinion’ and not started a ripple effect which banned them from radio airplay, therefore hurting their livelihoods, potential touring and record revenues, awards?” Fram asked. “Who knows what other amazing voices would have broken through if history played out differently?”
Moss wonders what it would mean to envision a contemporary country landscape where women artists aren’t first contextualized and evaluated on political rhetoric. The Chicks’ newest album, “Gaslighter” — released in 2020 after a 14-year silence — marked the band’s fifth time appearing as No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Album chart. Still, talk of what happened to them in 2003 still surrounds their every achievement — including their return to country radio with “Gaslighter.” It’s a fate many other women in country music face.
“To what degree can you see a future for Maren Morris that doesn’t mention her ‘hot button’ topics, but just talks about her artistry?” Moss asked. “Do women get the same in-depth analysis of their art in music journalism?”
To Moss, what happened to The Chicks triggered an erasure of meaningful, historical conversation about The Chicks as artists — the thing that got them in front of a large London crowd in the first place.
“I don’t think we talk enough about how good The Chicks are — how good they were then, and how good they are now. At the moment when this happened, they were and still are incredible singers and players and performers,” Moss said. “The Chicks were also already one of the greatest country bands of all time and I don’t think we talk about that enough. It is so easy to take that part of the story away and get so caught up in that moment. It’s important to learn from the lessons of the past, but it’s also important to talk about the impact of their music and the quality of their music. That’s part of their story, too.”
Written by Jennifer Gerson for The 19th. Subscribe to their newsletter.
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